Ethics of Self Disclosure in Clinical Social Work
Due to the diverse nature of social work duties, roles, and work settings, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has an extensive and thorough Code of Ethics that guide social work practice. Whether a social worker works in mental health, education, community organizing, policy, or research, they have an obligation to maintain high ethical standards to keep the focus on the overall goal of the profession.
The NASW Code of Ethics is comprised of a preamble introducing the overall goal of the profession, seven foundational values that guide the profession, and principles of behavior to clients, colleagues, and the greater community. This breakdown emphasizes the profession’s obligations to not only individual support, but community and society, as well and serve as guidelines for how social workers should conduct themselves in order to do the least harm possible and maximizing our effectiveness and ability to help the people we serve.
Clinical social work is a specialty within social work, and focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Clinical social workers often provide psychotherapy and can overlap with psychologists, licensed counselors, and marriage/family therapists. The Code of Ethics is extremely important when working with those experiencing mental health-related challenges. Clinical social workers must be aware of the power dynamic between them and the clients who receive mental health services, and one controversial topic related to ethical clinical practice is clinician self-disclosure.
What is therapist self-disclosure? Simply put, it’s when the therapist shares a personal piece of information about themselves that the client may not otherwise know. In addition, self-disclosure can be subtle and be a part of how we dress, speak, and how we keep our office space. If a therapist working with a client discloses too much personal information, then it can take the focus away from the client and their experiences and shift it to the therapist, which is not the goal of psychotherapy. Clients are often in a vulnerable place, and a therapist must be aware of that and be able to effectively create a safe space for the client to process and work through their experiences.
In the preamble to the Code of Ethics, the primary mission of social work is to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2017, section of Preamble) This statement is applicable to clinical social work because mental health is an important part of overall well-being, and many systems of oppression, marginalization, and impoverishment have severe consequences for individuals and communities of people.
Listed in the Code of Ethics are a variety of core values and expectations for conducting ethical practice. The values of service and competence, as well as the ethical obligations to clients, coworkers, communities, and larger policies are extremely important to adhere to in clinical practice. Social workers are called to be present and be of service to clients, and clinical social workers are in the position to assist clients in reaching their mental health related goals. In addition, clients who are experiencing mental health difficulties often seek out therapy services, and clinical social workers can use their combined person-in-environment knowledge and psychotherapy training to empower and assist clients to find ways to care for their mental health. Clinical social workers also must maintain competence in their area of work. Because clients are often experiencing stress that makes them more vulnerable, clinical social workers must balance awareness of that and keep up to date with the best practice standards for mental health practice. Clinical social workers must also be well-versed in the treatment modalities they are trained in to prevent them from practicing outside of their scope of practice. The consequences of doing so could be severe for the clients and compound their stress and difficulties in taking care of their mental health.
As a clinical social worker, it is important to be mindful of self-disclosure when practicing. While the intent may not be to harm or take focus off of the client, too much self-disclosure on the clinician's end can sever the therapeutic relationship as well as perpetuate oppressive dynamics because of the power imbalance between therapist and client. It is important for clinical social workers to be self-aware and consider their underlying motivations for wanting to self-disclose. While there may be intent to show clients that “we can relate and empathize,” the impact of too much therapist self-disclosure can leave the client feeling dismissed, unheard, and disempowered. As clinical social workers, we have a responsibility to create a therapeutic space that will be what the client needs and wants, which involves a balance of being authentic but not overpowering the voices of clients.
You can read more about the NASW Code of Ethics here: https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English
National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved April 1, 2022, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English